Preview: 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Group C

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Coming off their first African title, Zambia gets a fortunate group draw to start their title defense. A refactoring Nigerian team is the group’s next threat, with two teams who’ve failed to impact recent tournaments rounding out Group C.

Like Group B, there is a top-heavy nature to this group, but while a team like Congo DR provided a threat at the bottom of Ghana’s group, the underdogs in this group sit waiting for a favorite to slip. A mistake-free mini-tournament should see the top two through.

Group C kicks off on Monday.

GROUP C: Zambia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia

ZAMBIA

World rank: 39; CAF rank: 5; Best finish: Champions in 2012.

The Copper Bullets shocked the world in 2012, defeating tournament favorites Cote d’Ivoire in the final to claim their first Cup of Nations. While that result sees Hervé Renard’s side carrying new expectations into South Africa, few are picking Zambia to make a run for a second title.

History: Though 2012 was the Copper Bullets’ first Cup victory, the team had made two previous appearances in the tournament final: 1974, 1994. Despite only limited success, Zambia have been consistent qualifiers for the competition, participating in 12 of the last 13 tournaments.

Players: Attacker Christopher Katongo (Henan Jianye, China) was player of the tournament last year. He’ll line up in support of 22-year-old Southampton striker Emmanuel Mayuka, one of two Copper Bullets playing in Europe’s big five leagues. The other, Stophira Sunzu (Reading, England), will anchor a defense featuring the team’s most-capped player, 35-year-old left back Joseph Musonda (Golden Arrows, South Africa). Isaac Chansa (Henan Jianye) will feature in midfield, while 21-year-old Chisamba Lungu (Ural Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia) is expected to get the call on the right side of Renard’s attack.

How they’ll play: Zambia’s lack of quality in midfield forces them to rely on the counter, something they proved adept at executing last year. It is, however, possible for them to be choked out of games, something that may explain their mediocre results since last year’s title.

Outlook: The Copper Bullets will need some breaks to replicate last year’s run, but making it out of group shouldn’t be a problem.

NIGERIA

World rank: 52; CAF rank: 9; Best finish: Champions in 1980 and 1994.

Internationally, Nigeria is still regarded as one of the Africa’s elites, a view that matches the pride and expectations of fans at home. But the luster is gone from a nation whose recent results fail to match their talent. The Super Eagles failed to qualify for Equatorial Guinea-Gabon and have not advanced from their World Cup group since their success in the 1990s.

History: Including their two titles, Nigeria has 13 top-three finishes — the most of any nation — but it’s been nearly 20 years since their last title. They haven’t made a tournament final in 13 years.

Players: After the disappointment of South Africa 2010, players like Peter Odemwingie, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, John Utaka and Obafemi Martins have been phased out of the team. The only players over 25 who are expected to start Nigeria’s first match are defender and captain Joseph Yobo (32, Fenerbahçe) as well as goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama (30, Maccabi Tel Aviv). Attackers Emmanuel Emenike (Spartak Moscow), Victor Moses (Chelsea), and Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow) average just over 22 years old, while 25-year-old John Obi-Mikel (Chelsea) is the old man in a midfield with Padova’s Nwankwo Obiorah and Real Betis’s Nosa Igiebor.

How they’ll play: Nigeria’s personnel has changed, but their play will largely be the same. Theirs is a stylish, flowing game that tends to work vertically as opposed to relying on possession. Particularly in their front three, the team has skill, pace, and potential, but despite the turnover in players, the question remains the same: Do they have a midfield to match?

Outlook: It’s an inexperienced squad but one that should be able to get out of the group on talent alone. Burkina Faso is capable while Ethopia’s stocking up. The Super Eagles’ inexperience is the risk.

BURKINA FASO

World rank: 92; CAF rank: 23; Best finish: Fourth place in 1998.

Having never qualified for a World Cup, Burkina Faso is the type of nation fans outside of Africa know little about. But with a number of players who play in prominent leagues, the Stallions are a more capable team than their lack of reputation suggests. The question is whether they can convert that talent, particularly in attack, to a team that can do more than merely keep up. Can Burkina Faso actually threaten anybody?

History: The team’s been a consistent qualifier for recent Cup of Nations, making eight of the last 10 editions of the tournament. Unfortunately they’ve only made it beyond the first round once: At home in 1998. Undone by their inability to score goals, the Stallions have been insignificant participants.

Players: Moumouni Dagano’s (Al-Sailiya, Qatar) 24 goals in 58 appearances make him Burkina Faso’s most-proven scoring threat, but left wing Jonathan Pitroipa is their most dangerous player. One of the main threats for Rennes in Ligue 1, the 26-year-old has been unable to find the same success for his national team (four goals in 34 appearances). Now’s the time for him to step up.

Marsielle’s Charles Kaboré plays at the base of a midfield purposing the more advanced Alain Traouré (Auxerre, France), with Lyon’s Bakary Koné the team’s best defender.

How they’ll play: A solid team that’s capable of containing opponents, Bukina Faso’s style typically lacks drive doing forward. The can play either a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, both of which will lack drive from the midfield. It’s unclear how head coach Paul Put can solve that problem.

Outlook: This is a team that could take advantage of Nigeria’s inexperience, but not if the Super Eagles play to their potential. The Stallions are waiting for somebody to fall before breaking back through into the quarterfinals.

ETHIOPIA

World rank: 110; CAF rank: 31; Best finish: 1962 Champions.

It’s been 31 years since Ethiopia has qualified for a major tournament. To do so, the former Champions needed five goals over two qualifying legs, eventually advancing past Sudan on the away goals tiebreaker. At 31st in the region, they are this year’s lowest-ranked qualifier.

History: Ethiopia won the third Cup of Nations and qualified for each of the first seven tournaments. Since, the Walya Antelopes have only qualified twice and not since 1982. They haven’t advanced beyond group play since the year they won the title.

Players: Nineteen of the squad’s 23 players are domestic-based, with Minnesota-raised NASL forward and former U.S. U-level player Fuad Ibrahim one of the exceptions. He’s part of a concerted search for new Ethopian talent.

Defender Degu Debebe captains the team. He’s been capped 44 times and will be partnered in central defense by Saint George teammate Abebaw Butako. (Seven Saint George players are in the squad.)

Twnety-five year old Addis Hintsa (Dedebit, Ethipoia) holds down the midfield, with Egypt-based Saladin Said (Wadi Degla) leading the attack.

How they’ll play: Inconsistently. Doing forward, the Antelopes are capable of goals (as they showed against Sudan), but they tend to play on the counter while paradoxically leaving an inconsistent defense excessively exposed.

Outlook: The Ethiopians are ambitious, but their ambition is more likely to be rewarded in their quest to qualify for Brazil. They’ll need both breaks and luck to get out of this group.

SCHEDULE

Monday, Jan. 21, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Zambia versus Ethiopia
Monday, Jan. 21, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Nigeria versus Burkina Faso
Friday, Jan. 25, 10:00 a.m. Eastern – Zambia versus Nigeria
Friday, Jan, 25, 1:00 p.m. Eastern – Burkina Faso versus Ethiopia
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Burkina Faso versus Zambia
Tuesday, Jan. 29, 12:00 p.m. Eastern – Ethiopia versus Nigeria

Wild guess order of finish:

1. Zambia (7 pts.)
2. Nigeria (5 pts.)
3. Burkina Faso (2 pts.)
4. Ethiopia (1 pt.)

Guardiola “satisfied” with derby draw; “It’s not easy” to play United

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Manchester City control their own destiny in the Premier League’s race to finish inside the top-four this season.

With five games to go, Man City sit fourth in the league table — just a point back of third-place Liverpool (with a game in hand), and a point ahead of fifth-place Manchester United after the two sides drew 0-0 on Thursday — and that fact has had an unbelievable calming effect on first-year City boss Pep Guardiola.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking in his post-game television interview, Guardiola seemed much happier and looser than you might expect a manager to be when he’s only just left the field of a heated rivalry game, against his personal nemesis, and failed to convert in one of 19 shots (6 on target) into the game’s decisive goal.

“We can’t forget against which team we played today — [they’re] 23 games in a row without defeat. We created enough chances to score, we created two [clear-cut chances]. In terms of statistics and the way we played, especially the approach, I am so satisfied.”

“I am satisfied, because I know how difficult it is to play against Manchester United — how aggressive they are. It’s not easy when you face 10 players behind. It’s not easy, and you have to always be in a good position to avoid a counter-attack with (Anthony) Martial and (Henrikh) Mkhitaryan. … We have the talent, but sometimes it’s not easy against so many players there.”

“We all have tough games coming up now and we know it’s not an option to not win these games. Every game is important.”

[ MORE: Mourinho pins blame for Fellaini’s red card on Aguero ]

It’s true that City had the best only real chances throughout the game, but just think of the joy Guardiola might be experiencing right now had Sergio Aguero found pay dirt with just one of his eight shots on the night (two on target) to push his side third in the league table, four points clear of United in fifth.

Mourinho: Fellaini headbutt “a bit of a red card,” a bit of Aguero acting

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Following his side’s 0-0 draw away to Manchester City in the Manchester derby on Thursday, Jose Mourinho has done precisely what we would have expected of him — precisely what he’s done his entire career; precisely what a manager is supposed to do — with regards to Marouane Fellaini‘s red card for a headbutt on Sergio Aguero: he defended him.

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Speaking in his post-game television interview, Mourinho said he wouldn’t comment on the incident, which left Manchester United with 10 players for the final six minutes of the game, because he hadn’t seen it on television. He then proceeded to comment on the incident, calling it “a bit of a red card and a bit of a very smart, very experienced Argentinian player.” As for the rest of United’s game plan, which left them wholly incapable of attacking throughout the game, well, they tried. They really tried…

“I don’t say, because I didn’t watch it on TV. I spoke with Marouane; he’s very disappointed, he feels it’s a red card because he’s Marouane Fellaini. I spoke with Martin [Atkinson]; Martin told him in his opinion it’s a red card. I didn’t watch, but I can guess it’s a bit of a red card, and a bit of a very smart, experienced Argentinian player” [smile]

“We wanted to do more in terms of attacking, we wanted to exploit more on the count-attack. We did that in the first half, we had very good control of the game in the first half. The second half was more difficult. In the end, we have one player less, [it was] even worse, so we had to make the right decision to fight hard to have a point.”

“They started slow, the pushed us hard, they pressed higher. At the same time, we were not able to have the ball and move the ball well. … I prefer to say that the qualities of the players on the pitch, especially in the midfield, we missed a little bit of that quality, to have the ball, to start moving the ball, to connect with the attacking players.”

[ MORE: Guardiola “satisfied” with draw; “It’s not easy” to play United ]

Aguero’s embellishment is quite clear if you watch the above video, but the fact remains there would have been nothing to embellish if Fellaini hadn’t headbutted him. On second thought, that didn’t stop Alexis Sanchez, so perhaps he still would have wound up on the ground, clutching his face.

Player ratings from Man City v. Man United

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MANCHESTER — A tight Manchester Derby saw City and United settle for a 0-0 draw with the home side wasting several glorious chances.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ] 

Both Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will be relatively pleased with the point which leaves the top four race wide-open with five games to go.

Here’s how each player marked out of 10.


MANCHESTER CITY

Claudio Bravo – 5 – Subbed off late on with a calf injury. Made a mess of a first half cross and didn’t have much else to do.

Pablo Zabaleta – 6 – Did okay defensively but a few loose balls in attack stopped City building up attacks.

Vincent Kompany – 8 – Superb display as he came through three games in 10 days. Held City’s backline together, once again.

Nicolas Otamendi – 6 – Struggled to cope with Rashford’s pace initially but recovered well. Gave away plenty of fouls.

Aleksandar Kolarov – 5 – Like Otamendi, struggled with pace of Rashford and was loose with the ball at his feet.

Fernandinho – 6 – Typically combative display in the heart of midfield from the Brazilian.

Raheem Sterling – 6 – Drifted in and out of the game and couldn’t get the better of Darmian.

Yaya Toure – 6 – Had little time on the ball in a congested midfield. Showed plenty of fighting spirit against Herrera.

Kevin De Bruyne – 7 – Always had that extra bit of quality to frighten United. Great ball in but Aguero hit the post and hit another just wide.

Leroy Sane – 6 – A rare off night for Sane as he was subbed out in the second half. The German winger never quite got going

Sergio Aguero – 6 – Had so many chances to score and wasn’t clinical. Drilled so many efforts over the bar and should’ve scored early.

Subs
Willy Caballero on for Claudio Bravo – 6 – Had little to do.
Jesus Navas on for Leroy Sane – 6 – Some good deliveries from wide areas late on.
Gabriel Jesus on for Raheem Sterling – 7 – Looked lively in his late cameo and thought he’d scored a late winner with a fine finish.


MANCHESTER UNITED

David De Gea – 6 – Made one good stop from Aguero early on but wasn’t troubled apart from that.

Antonio Valencia – 6 – Fine in defense but offered little in attack.

Eric Bailly – 7 – Stood up to the task of marking Aguero and made a fine sliding tackle in the first half. Held things together. Just.

Daley Blind – 6 – Didn’t have much to do but defended well when he had to.

Matteo Darmian – 5 – Was given a tough time by Sterling, De Bruyne and Navas.

Michael Carrick – 6 – Solid in midfield as he tried to get attacks going but space was clogged up.

Anthony Martial – 6 – Worked hard out wide but had little chance to spring counters. Steady.

Ander Herrera – 7 – A typical terrier-like display in midfield. Stopped Yaya Toure marauding forward.

Marouane Fellaini – 4 – Couldn’t influence the game other than stupidly hacking down Aguero and then headbutting him.

Henrikh Mkhitaryan – 5 – Hardly had a kick and couldn’t troubled City’s defense on the break. Not his type of game.

Marcus Rashford – 8 – Standout player on the pitch in the first half. His raw pace frightened the life out of City.

Subs
Jesse Lingard on for Anthony Martial – 5 – Just sat in and helped out defensively.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah on for Henrikh Mkhitaryan – 5 – Helped out defensively when it was needed late on.
Ashley Young on for Marcus Rashford – N/A – Used as a time-wasting tactic.

Three things we learned from Man City v. Man United

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MANCHESTER — Manchester City and Manchester United fought out a 0-0 draw in the Manchester Derby on Thursday as two teams battling for the top four canceled each other.

[ MORE: Player ratings from City, United

City had the better chances with Sergio Aguero hitting the post and going close on multiple occasions but Pep Guardiola‘s men couldn’t break through and Jose Mourinho’s United — who finished the game with 10-men after Marouane Fellaini was sent off — remain one point and one place behind them in the table.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]  

Here’s what we learned from a tight, tense derby.


RASHFORD RAMPANT

It seems like each and every week Marcus Rashford is improving drastically. The 19-year-old was the standout player on the pitch in the Manchester Derby at the Etihad, once again.

13 months ago Rashford scored a superb game-winner for United at City but as impressive as he was on that day, his game and body have developed drastically since then.

His sheer pace left City’s defenders for dead on mutliple occasions with Nicolas Otamendi and Aleksandar Kolarov often given a 10-yard head start but not able to catch Rashford.

An audacious flick over Otamendi with this back of his heel while he was on the move was the pick of his moment. Rashford is maturing rapidly and after he tore Chelsea apart just 10 days ago, he was United’s biggest attacking threat all evening.

Manchester United will miss Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s penchant for popping up at the right place at the right time — as he’s done on 28 occasions this season before having his season ended through injury — but if Rashford is given enough time on the pitch, his rapidly development will surely see him flourish into one of the finest forwards in the game.


GUARDIOLA, MOURINHO OVERCAUTIOUS

All three games between Man City and Man United this season have been tight, tense encounters. This was no different.

City ripped United apart in the first half of their 2-1 win at Old Trafford back in September and then United edged things in a 1-0 home win in the EFL Cup a month later.

Guardiola’s City once again did all the pressing in this game as Aguero hit the outside of the post from a wonderful ball from the brilliant Kevin De Bruyne and the Argentine ace had an off day in front of goal, blazing off target on multiple occasions as United stayed compact but let him have a glimpse of the goal from distance.

With City just one point ahead of United with five games to go for both teams, Pep will probably still be feeling the more confident of the two managers about finishing in the top four given the respective run-in’s for both clubs. Yes, United have gone 24 games unbeaten in the Premier League but they aren’t exactly impressing.

Mourinho set his team up to counter with Rashford, Anthony Martial and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in attack but United never truly got hold of the ball as City’s high-pressing surprisingly unnerved season campaigners such as Michael Carrick, Ander Herrera and Fellaini with the latter headbutting Aguero stupidly late on to see red.

Considering all of thier injuries and plenty of games coming up, United will be happy with a point to stay in the top four hunt and so will City. The final encounter between Guardiola and Mourinho this season didn’t live up to the hype and with so much on the line in their debut camapigns in Manchester, just four goals across the three Manchester derbies proves that neither has lost face locally.

Then again, neither have impressed much this season either.


KOMPANY BACK TO HIS BEST

On three occasions in the first half Vincent Kompany stepped in to make superbly timed interceptions.

City’s skipper is well and truly back to his best.

After two injury ravaged campaign the Belgian star, 31, led from the back and was always willing to step high and engage United’s attacks to try and stop them at source.

Question marks will still remain about Kompany’s fitness for the foreseeable future but after playing three games in 10 days he finally seems to have not only regained his fitness but also his form.

It remains to be seen whether Kompany will still be at City next season but you have to think him remaining is essential after the shaky play of both Otamendi and John Stones for much of this season.

Since Kompany returned to fitness in early April, City have conceded just three goals in the four games he’s played with the skipper having two clean sheets.